Diana Hubbell seeks out authentic Thai food in Berlin…
I experienced my first pang of Heimweh when I broke down and ordered Thai food in Berlin. I had just moved to the city after three years of working in Bangkok and the craving for my old favourites was fierce. I hadn’t really expected it to be good, but the watery, freezer’s worth of mixed vegetables and soggy, deep-fried “duck” was downright depressing. Other dishes were equally grim. Greasy lo mein noodles tasting entirely of soy sauce. Cloying phad Thai and bland curries. Gooey, sweet-and-sour messes rife with corn syrup.
I didn’t get it. Berlin, with all its multikulti cred and reasonable population of Thai immigrants, seemed like it should be able to do better. There were more than 5,000 Thais in the city according to a census published in 2011 and far more Germans who had spent at least a week on a beach in Phuket or Koh Samui—enough to know a green curry from a culinary disaster.
Besides, Thai cuisine has been enjoying something of a quiet revival in other parts of the Western world. Chefs such as Andy Ricker and David Thompson have been trumpeting its virtues and people are starting to take notice. Surely, the real deal was out there somewhere.
To understand why Thailand’s food is worth seeking out, it’s important to realise that this is a nation obsessed with eating. Mealtimes provide the social framework for the day, a chance to catch up over heaping communal dishes. The spaces between the conventional breakfast, lunch and dinner quickly fill up with snacks and smaller dishes—a blisteringly hot pad krapow moo (stir-fried pork with holy basil) here or a bite of sweet, wobbly pandan custard there. Street vendors hustling noodle soups dominate virtually all sidewalk space and the cities smell of sizzling pork fat and chilies. Anytime, anywhere you look, someone is eating, preparing or talking about food.
And small wonder. This insatiable population has produced a cuisine of such variety and scope that it would take two lifetimes to taste it all. The royal dishes of Bangkok err on the sweeter, milder side and feature the baroque fruit carvings guidebooks so love to showcase. Down south, Muslim-influenced dishes ditch the pork, while coconut milk from the islands’ bountiful trees lends richness to sour fish curries. Up in the northern countryside, the som tums become ever fierier, the rice turns stickier, the fish sauce ages for several years, and the curries grow thick with dried spices.
All this variety owes much to lands surrounding the old Kingdom of Siam. Lao, Burmese and, most importantly, Chinese cooking techniques have been liberally plundered over the years. Even the famous phad Thai is just a nationalistic attempt to dress up the similar Chinese stir-fried noodles, called chao mian, with a different identity. Yet somehow, in the midst of all this cultural appropriation, Thailand has managed to create a culinary tradition that isn’t quite like any other.
It can also be intimidating to the uninitiated. This is a cuisine with very literal blood and guts—yes, those are intestines grilling on the street and, yes, that’s a ladle of steaming pig’s blood in your boat noodles—and with a flavour profile one would never call “subtle.” Dishes can be brashly spicy, sweet, sour and salty, often all at the same time. Umami-rich ingredients such as cured pork, fermented fish sauce, dried shrimp and, yes, the infamous monosodium glutamate make regular appearances. To those who grow up eating it, other types of food taste oddly muted, like attempting a meal after a hefty dose of Novocaine. To those who have never known it, it’s a visceral shock.
Which might explain what happened when I went to Sarod’s, a hole-in-the-wall near Kreuzberg. I’d heard excellent word-of-mouth reviews and the staff all had at least some Thai ancestry. So I was more than a bit surprised when my first dish arrived: chunks of squid and bell pepper swimming in a pale yellow curry with no discernable spice and little flavour.
Disappointed, I was getting ready to leave when I noticed one waiter eyeing me a bit dubiously. He asked me how I liked the food.
“It’s fine,” I said politely.
“But…I’m not sure why you ordered this dish if you lived in Bangkok,” he replied sceptically. “Yellow curry doesn’t even exist in Thailand.”
He had a point. I’d mistakenly ordered it thinking it was something else. So I asked for a better suggestion, something “Thai style.”
A few minutes later, out came another round of fluffy rice with a bowl of gaeng pha. There was no coconut milk and not a mixed vegetable in sight. Instead, a thin broth framed fresh green peppercorns and pea-sized eggplants. It was tear-inducingly spicy and sour. I inhaled the entire thing, even though it was my second plate.
“We make it just like in Thailand,” said the owner when I spoke to him. His partner, Pom Sudamiong Wornpian, has been the chef at Sarod’s since it opened six years ago. The two still have a house in Kanchanaburi, where they spend a good portion of the year. They pride themselves on serving authentic, sometimes tricky-to-find dishes such as puu phad phong curry (stir-fried crab pieces in the shell with an eggy curry sauce), gung chaeh nam plah (raw shrimp with a serious garlic-chili punch) and som tam puu (papaya salad with tiny, pungent freshwater crabs).
Sadly, such dishes are still something of a novelty in Berlin, which is why you’ll also find the aforementioned yellow curry, sweet-and-sour stir-fries and crispy skinned duck on the menu. The latter two are Cantonese dishes that have been heavily adapted for local German tastes.
“You’ll always have someone in a big group that expects these things to be here and will be upset if they aren’t,” the owner says. “But people who know Thailand know to order other dishes. And those we make just like we would over there.”
For those willing to navigate the menu carefully, Sarod’s has some solid offerings in a part of town not known for its Thai population. Stick to dishes from the Landstil section of the menu, or go for one of their salads such as yam thua puh gung (wing bean salad with a luscious coconut sauce) or laab ped (salad of finely chopped duck seasoned with herbs and toasted rice).
For my next stop, I hopped a train to City West. My destination? Dao, one of the city’s best known upscale Thai restaurants. It has occupied a small space on Kantstraße for the last decade, but came under new ownership two years ago when Meo (“cat” in Thai) purchased it. Since then, Meo has redecorated the entire place in warm reds and golds. She has done numerous cooking demonstrations at KaDeWe and Green Week, achieving a level of fame almost unequaled by similar restaurants.
When I meet her in person, Meo is every bit the composed businesswoman I might have expected. She’s striking, with high cheekbones, impeccable style and a very visible pride in what she’s accomplished. Originally born on Hat Yai, she moved to Berlin a year after marrying her German husband. One cosmetic business and another restaurant later, she had the money and the opportunity to buy Dao. She’s now a mother of two, her eldest of which just completed a three-year stint at the prestigious Tim Rau restaurant, as well as a successful business owner. She speaks impeccable German learned from scratch.
“No one told me to do this,” she says. “And it isn’t always easy to live here. But when you really decide to do something, you just make it work.”
In order to make it work at Dao and her adjacent Thai Kochschule, she definitely goes the extra mile. Curry pastes get the mortar and pestle treatment. Hard-to-find vegetables and ingredients are flown in weekly from the motherland. Rather than seek out Thai chefs in Berlin, Meo scouts for talent back home and imports the best. In her school, she teaches every class herself, animatedly hacking away at lemongrass and kaffir limes, often sharing a glass of potent Mekong whiskey with her guests.
All of her effort shows. The som tam is spot on, as are the red and green curries. Pla neung ma nao (steamed whole fish with lemon sauce) arrives bathed in citrusy juices. Even the mango in the ubiquitous mango sticky rice is a cut above the fibrous, bruised specimens floating around most of Berlin’s grocery stores.
A few concessions have been made to local tastes. The steamed fish is butterflied for easier eating and there are no cubes of congealed chicken blood in the green curry. Meo acknowledges that she adjusts the spice levels upon request. Still, this may well be the closest one can come to Thai fine dining in the city.
At Sammaki Talad Thai—the name roughly translates to “Thai together market”—diners can choose from a selection of prepared curries or made-to-order dishes. The place has the look of a cafeteria. Behind the counter, little old ladies fry up lunch in ancient-looking woks before rushing over to the restaurant’s slot machine when the rush dies down. To call the ambiance “no frills” would be an understatement.
Yet the food was so good that I ate until I could barely move. There’s phad Thai, more savoury than sweet, and stir-fried vegetables called phad pak jay. Luscious, fatty slices of pork in moo daeng are braised for hours until caramelised and served in a thick gravy with slices of hard-boiled egg and bits of candied Thai sausage. Spice appears judiciously and exactly where it should, such as in a gaeng dang gai (red curry with chicken).
The menu is short, but it manages to cram in many of the country’s neglected culinary stars. Soupy sukiyaki glass noodles, rad naa with Chinese kale, neon red yentafo soup. For the brave, there’s even Isaan-style som tum with the pungent, intensely funky fermented fish sauce. With such a selection at such a price—most dishes are €5—it’s no wonder that the place has been packed with Thai expats since it opened four years ago.
Sammaki Talad Thai is all about homestyle cooking, the kind of Southeast Asian soul food for which expats yearn. I’ve eaten at some of the most ambitious restaurants in Bangkok, where curries morph into foams or spheres or are frozen in liquid nitrogen. Yet what I find myself missing the most is a big plate of greasy, oyster-sauced noodles. I miss the foods my friends ate in their houses or on neon-lit street corners.
It occurred to me that given the simple nature of most of these dishes, there was no reason I couldn’t attempt some of them on my own. I ordered the appropriate arsenal of cookbooks: Issaya Siamese Club by Ian Kittichai, Thai Food and Thai Street Food by David Thompson, and the James Beard darling Pok Pok by Andy Ricker. I set off for a tiny Asian food shop on Kantstraße in search of tamarind, galangal, fresh turmeric root and other necessary ingredients.
Before I holed myself up with a wok for the fall though, I made one last weekend pilgrimage to Preußenpark, often referred to simply as Thaiwieße. In the spring and summer months, in this incongruous, semi-legal corner of Charlottenburg, Thai women set up their umbrellas and start selling homestyle cooking. Most of these ladies are not professional cooks and few have more than a feeble electrical burner. Still, if it’s homestyle cooking you’re after, there are remarkably good eats to be found here. My satays, som tum and noodle soup were all on the mark.
The park’s greatest draw may be more about the ambiance than the actual dishes. On a busy weekend day, Southeast Asian families cover the field with their picnic blankets and knock back Singha beers or shots of Sangsom whiskey. On my last visit, there was a drag show where a performer defiantly sang in head-to-toe sequins despite the heat. I heard the sing-song tones of Thai patter back and forth as people ate and drank and shared stories of a distant homeland.
All images, except where stated, by James Fancourt.
Addresses & Contacts
Friesenstraße 22, 10965 Berlin
Kantstraße 133, 10625 Berlin
Kantstraße 133, 10625 Berlin
Lützowstraße 81, 10785 Berlin
Sammaki Talad Thai
Kaiser-Friedrich Strasse 41, 10627 Berlin
ASIA FOODLAND – Asia Shop
Kantstraße 53, 10627 Berlin
Fehrbelliner Platz, 10707 Berlin Wilmersdorf
(Always active in the summer months, but much more to see/taste on a Sunday afternoon when the weather’s nice)